Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Iron Bridge Wine Company

10435 State Route 108
Columbia, MD

I started out trying to write a review of Iron Bridge, where I went for dinner with my parents over the weekend, as though it were any other place I review in the city, as an exercise. I started out with a semi-jocular description of Columbia, the town where I grew up, and then got stuck. I had written down everything we ate, but didn't have all that much to say about it. But maybe that is what I have to say.

Columbia is a planned community, situated on the imaginary line between Baltimore and Washington (as a quasi-local, I never got into calling it DC, although everyone else seems to), a little closer to Baltimore. What "planned" means, at least in Columbia's case--the circumstances were considerably different in Levittown, NY , and somewhat less so in Reston, VA--is that some developers (led by the late James Rouse, actor Edward Norton's grandfather) got together in the mid-late 60's, found some land in then-rural Howard County, MD, and built a town on the idea that different people from different backgrounds could live well together. Present-day Columbia consists of seven "villages," each with its own village center (a sort of circularly laid-out strip shopping center with some public space), a high school or two, a handful of middle schools, and several elementary schools. The town center is home to Lake Kittamaqundi (featured in the lovely picture above, which I found here), an ever-increasingly upscale mall, and a handful of restaurants and green space. Columbia's a great place to grow up, but I wouldn't [yet] call it a tourist mecca.

Over the years, the occasional eatery of note has cropped up in one of the restaurant parks in the area (that's what they call them; do non-planned communities have restaurant parks?), but on the whole, given time and the inclination to do some driving, my parents go to Baltimore or Washington to do their serious eating. Iron Bridge Wine Company is one of the few places in town that could survive in a foodier setting than Columbia. It's got the sort of "we love good ingredients" attitude that we take for granted here in New York, but is a refreshing change along Route 108. Iron Bridge could lead the way for Columbia to become the sort of dining destination that many of its residents would give their cul-de-sacs to live in.

So, about that food. The sweet potato bisque, while a little under-warm in my book, was very tasty. It had a little kick to it and, frankly, stole my heart with its color and seasonality. Who can resist a sweet potato in October? I ordered the baby arugula salad with strawberries, queso fresco, and chocolate-balsamic vinaigrette and had the kitchen hold the hazelnuts. It is only in rereading the menu that I am reminded that chocolate was supposed to be part of the dressing; I don't recall noticing it as I ate. The salad was good overall: nice, fresh strawberries, and I'm a sucker for a salad with fruit and cheese in it. My mom ordered a Caesar salad. This was what theatre historians would call her tragic error, because she is the Queen of Dressingontheside and what she really wanted was a green salad, but it seemed there wasn't one available. Sure enough, moments after Caesar's arrival, she flagged down a server (not ours, incidentally) and asked for another salad without the dressing because, as she put it, "it looked like each lettuce leaf had a pint of mayonnaise on it." But how do you really feel? To her credit, I think she may have made that last comment to us and not to the waitstaff.

If there is something Maryland does right, it's crab. I used to order crab cakes regularly in New York, because I assumed they would all be like the ones I grew up with. I have learned my lesson and now avoid them outside DelMarVa. I now know that most of the world thinks that little shreddy bits of crabmeat are wholly acceptable building material for a crab cake. Where I come from, only jumbo lump crabmeat will do. In summary, please observe the following:

This is a crab cake:

This is a joke:

I want jumbo lump and very little else in my cake, thank you very much. A teensy bit of mayo to keep things interesting, fine, a few breadcrumbs to hold it together, if you must, but that's it. And broiled, if you please. Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo's Top Chef, famously said back in June that "[y]ou can fry my toe and if you batter it right, it's going to taste good." Indeed, frying something as delectable as jumbo lump crabmeat is unnecessary and insulting and would only conceal its beauty. Toes, yes, but good crab, no.

That said, my mother and I had the jumbo lump crabcake with heirloom tomato salad, asparagus, and balsamic drizzle. These cakes were fine specimens; I only hope they tide me over until my next visit home. My father had oven baked rockfish with tapenade, lime-scented polenta, and charred tomato sauce, which was inventive, flavorful, and satisfying. I often bypass fish in favor of proteins I think will better hit the spot, but this one would have done the trick in style. And lime-scented polenta. Yum.

Unfortunately, dessert was a no-go this time, as we were in a semi-hurry to get me to an Amtrak back to the city, but I would definitely return to Iron Bridge Wine Company. It's doing a great job of helping Columbia to be a place to visit, and not just a place to live.

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